Richard Brigden, formerly a project lawyer for SALC in Malawi, now based at the UK Bar with Garden Court North Chambers, is currently back in Malawi representing SALC and participating in the provision of specialist pre-trial justice training to magistrates, prosecutors, justice officials and paralegals. The training represents a joint initiative between Chancellor College at the University of Malawi, the Institute for Professional Legal Training (IPLT) located at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal and SALC. The press statement describing the objectives of the training can be accessed here.
Below is Richard’s description of the training thus far.
SALC, together with Chancellor College and the IPLT are currently training Malawian Ministry of Justice officials on various issues that affect pre-trial detention in Malawi. The Malawian criminal justice system is beset by a number of systematic problems which result in defendants spending years in prison awaiting a trial. Those that are lucky enough to be bought to trial face severe delays in the completion of their trial. It is not unusual for trials to begin and then be adjourned for many months, if not years, before they are finally finished. Those that are convicted then face further delays in being sentenced.
These delays in turn impact on other defendants so that prisons are now seriously overcrowded with remanded prisoners who have been awaiting trial for years. It is not unusual for those charged with the most serious crimes to be remanded for over 5 years before they are bought to trial. In extreme cases (which are not limited to a handful) remandees wait for over a decade before being bought to trial.
During the training these problems are readily accepted by Malawian justice officials and in recent years there has been a real push to alleviate the systematic problems that lead to such prolonged periods of pre-trial detention. This acceptance has seen a number of positive statutory amendments which are aimed at reducing these problems. This includes recent amendments to the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code (CPEC) and new laws such as the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act 2010. The training, held in Blantyre, Mzuzu and Lilongwe has focused on the new laws with specific attention given to:
- Plea Agreements,
- Prosecution time limits,
- Custody time limits,
- Diversion from the criminal justice system,
- Bail and Habeas Corpus.
Much of the training is also concerned with a move away from reliance on old British common law (which understandably is often of little relevance in the Malawian context) towards a constitutional approach. The Malawian constitution, on paper, is a modern constitution of which Malawians are rightly proud.
All of the Malawian ministry of justice officials involved in the training have been open to the problems of pre-trial detention. The officials have engaged with the new laws and been receptive to ideas about how they can be used to ameliorate the problems of pre-trial detention. Most importantly the officials have come up with innovative and thoughtful ways to alleviate the problems of pre-trial detention in Malawi.
In particular the magistrates have been keen to understand how they can use the Constitution and the new amendments to push the police and the prison service into greater action. The Magistrates are clear that their judicial authority can and should be exercised so as to ensure that defendants do not spend such a long period of time in prison whilst awaiting trial.
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